Friday, March 25, 2016

Wildlife scenes in the Chubut province of Patagonia.

I left you in Esquel boarding an overnight bus for Puerto Madryn on Patagonia’s east coast. We go with a taxi to the Hi Patagonia hostel run by the charming and very helpful Gaston. So helpful that he had no problem putting a  kettle on to boil so that we could have our first proper cup of tea since arriving in South America. Tea lovers know what I mean!

Gaston soon put us on to the first of several wildlife encounters. We boarded a big zodiac, fit for 50+ passengers and headed out in the bay to see some dolphins, seal lions and birds.

Sea lions and cormorants on the rocky shore of Golfo Nuevo
 The dolphins did not oblige but the seal lion colony, dominated by a big bull, on the rocky shore was interesting, especially when we saw Imperial Cormorants and a single gull standing nearby. Later we identified it as a Kelp gull.

Under the boat and a farewell wave
We may have missed out on the dolphin but then an extraordinary bonus presented itself. The boat crew asked us to watch for disturbances in the water surface. Long before any of us amateurs saw anything the skipper called out “There it is.” At once we saw the tell-tale of a tail above the surface. 

It was a juvenile humpback. The guys at once identified  it as a different one from that seen the previous week.

 As if this was not enough of a thrill the magnificent creature swam right under our boat, not once but twice within fifteen minutes.

On our walk back to the hostel we once more admired the variety and number of graffiti on any available wall.   They are in every community we visited

Over the next two days we hired a car, a much newer, more comfortable and more reasonably priced Ford than the crummy Chevy for which we had been gouged in Bariloche. Two hundred dollars American in the Andean town was outrageous. 

We headed for Peninsula Valdés a fascinating area that has been designated as a national park.  

A road sign makes things clear.
Along the way there were several groups of  wild guanacos, a few rheas and an array of succulent flowers that we could not hope to identify.

 The red one is thought, by the authors of this site  to be a member of the Aizoaceae family.

 The yellow is probably Opuntia maihuen. All were fleshy and low to the ground, seeming to be drought and salt resistant.

Jo puts things in perspective

A lunchtime stop at Punta Delgado gave us a chance to see the skeleton of a Southern Right whale. The whales  themselves gather in the Golfo San Matias on the northern side of the peninsula over the months of May to December. 

We were too late to see them congregate there, but they are reported to be so tame that one can get close to them as they calve and breed. Maybe we’ll see them next time we go.

After lunch we were led by a charming guide down a steep incline to see a group of female elephant seals. They look like giant slugs. There were no big bulls around so we did not see the noisy and vicious fighting that is so readily viewed on all sorts of wildlife movies and no doubt on YouTube. This one, shot by Richard Sidey is a good example. 

Next day we headed to Punta Norte, the northern-most tip of the peninsula to see much larger colonies of sea-lions.
A disproportionate weight advantage
We saw one breeding event. A huge male smothered a female that seemed to be trying to escape. How she survived her mate's crushing weight (400 kg) is thought for reflection.

            We hoped to see the famous beach hunting of sea–lion pups by Orcas. No luck. We were about a week early. The pups were still with their mothers and had not yet ventured out to swim. From Gaston we learned more about the unique hunting technique. It stems from an old human activity. At one time the ranchers used to capture the pups for food. They would chop off the heads and flippers and chuck them into the water. The Orcas soon found out about these free lunches. Next step, self-service. This National Geographic clip, shot on the same beach, shows what we missed. The commentary is inane and way over the top. It makes no mention of the human induced behaviour.

The next two days took us bird watching. We had heard that there is a huge lagoon near the town of Trelew, a ninety minute bus ride south of Peurto Madryn.
Chilean flamingos and others on take-off
 We found it, but were in for a surprise. It is indeed huge, many kilometres long, but it is a sewage lagoon. There were thousand of ducks and swans swimming on it. They rose in a cloud as we approached. In the distance I saw some Chilean flamingos, one of three species seen in South America. The others live in the high Andes. A stalk behind scrub and bushes got me within a hundred metres. As they also rose I was able to snap their departure. In silhouette there are many ducks and a couple of ibis, identifiable by their long down-curved beaks. An hour of the smell was enough.

Our last day in Puerto Madryn gave us two spectacular experiences. The morning two-hour taxi ride to Ponto Tombo led to an amazing experience.  Ponto Tombo's name comes from the site where the aboriginal people buried their dead (tombs). We walked among a Magellanic penguin colony of something like one million birds. 

At the entrance to the trail a sign shows that not only folks in wheel chairs can gain prior access, but also pregnant women, a nice touch with a simple graphic message.

 The path for visitors is clearly marked with a two-strand wire fence.

Competing for food. Two chicks mob one parent
Our taxi driver, who had taken tourists there many times, knew the area well, told us that there had been no penguins at the site before 1978. 

 The tiny penguins come to the beach and the walk (waddle) up, in some cases over a kilometre to their respective burrows. Every pair returns to the same burrow each year for the nesting season. By the time the chicks are weaned they are the same size, or a tad bigger that their parents.

The birds have right of way on the fenced paths where tourist are permitted. They know it. One walked within half a metre of Jo, ignoring her completely.
We watched chicks mobbing parent birds as they returned with full stomachs from feeding in the ocean. Outside some burrows there were two chicks competing with vigour to get at the regurgitated food. The adults trade off every ten days and are said to travel up to six hundred kilometres out to sea to find their food.

As we returned to the parking lot I needed to answer a "call of nature".  The choice of cubicles was clear, but shown in a delightful way.

Our visit to the town ended up with a fine sea-food supper and a magic rainbow show.  

The sea front at Puerto Madryn

 Then it was off to the bus station for another overnight ride north. Next stop Coronel Suarez. 


Rhodesia said...

Great post and lots of interesting info. Love the photos. We are off to our very first visit of the USA in June and looking forward to seeing different birds and animals. Hope you are well Diane

Laura Moin said...

What a wonderful trip! I've been to Puerto Madryn and camped at Puerto Piramides more than 25 years ago! I would be interested in knowing if the colonies of sea-lions got bigger or shrinked. Glad your rental car experience was better than in Bariloche, where you stayed at the same hotel as the Obama's.

Jerry Haigh said...

Thanks Diane and Laura. The wildlife sightings in the US will very much depend on where you are going. No doubt the Obamas took note of our recommendations :). And on the sea-lion numbers, I'm afraid I have no idea and have no idea how to find out.

Anonymous said...

Wish we could have been there, Jerry, but your descriptions make it feel as though we were. And your last photo verifies what we've heard but never had appreciated: that the colors of the secondary rainbow are in reverse order. Thank you! (You were quite right about the foolish narration on the National Geographic piece!) We've experienced penguin indifference in a few locations, too. So easy to wonder "what are they thinking"; when, in fact, humans can not know "how" the other animals are thinking, what their world views are. You are certainly bringing many elements of Nature into clearer focus with your words and pictures. Thanks!

Kate said...

What a fascinating place! Great pics and blog post Jerry. You continue to lead such an interesting life 😃

Susan said...

Great post, Jerry. Sounds like you are on a wonderful adventure. Pictures of Jo with Southern Right Whale skeleton and being blithely ignored by a passing penguin probably my favourites.

Judit said...

This is clearly a wonderful adventure Jerry & Jo! Thanks for sharing it for those of us who do not use face book.
Bert and I are off for our own, much drier, Moroccan adventure next. We will learn some day how to share in such an appealing way.